The English Renaissance was well known for its revolutionary architecture, beautiful visual arts and, of course, the works of William Shakespeare.
This 16th-century period acts as the backdrop for “Something Rotten!,” a Broadway musical comedy which played at the Lied Center for Performing Arts this weekend.
“Something Rotten!” claims yet another (albeit fictional) innovation of the English Renaissance: musical theater. It follows playwright brothers Nick (Matthew Michael Janisse) and Nigel Bottom (Richard Spitaletta) as they try to write their first hit play.
But they have stiff competition from Shakespeare (Matthew Baker), whose works like “Richard II” and “Romeo and Juliet” are dominating the theater world. Nick seeks assistance from Thomas Nostradamus (Greg Kalafatas), a nephew of the famous soothsayer, to tell him the next big thing.
When Nostradamus foresees song and dance as the future of theater, Nick attempts to convince Nigel that they need to write the first musical in order to surpass Shakespeare in fame. Along the way, Nick becomes arrogant, as troubles arise with his wife and brother in his attempt to reach notoriety.
As a musical about musicals themselves, “Something Rotten!” contains plenty of references to musical theater history. There are nods to “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Music Man” and countless others that musical theater fans will find hilarious. This meta-humor is most present in “A Musical,” the song in which Nostradamus tells Nick about how musicals will be loved by future audiences, going through a brief history of famous showtunes like “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Seasons of Love.”
This number was a highlight of the show, a showstopper that brought down the house. It is also one of many large-scale, high-energy numbers in the show, with “Will Power” and “Make an Omelette” as other standout tunes.
The performances by the supporting cast were excellent, especially in the portrayals of Nick and Nigel’s respective love interests, Bea (Emily Kristen Morris) and Portia (Allison C. Scott). The two women are strong characters with their own arcs that challenge the standards set for women in Renaissance (and modern) society. Bea poses as a man to show that women can do the same jobs as men, and Portia stands up to her rigid Puritan father by reading poetry and enjoying theater.
Where the acting fell a little short was with the two lead roles of Shakespeare and Nick. If you’ve listened to the original Broadway cast album and watched clips of the original actors’ performances, it’s very clear that Baker and Janisse are doing their best to emulate the work of stellar Broadway actors Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle in these lead roles.
And, at times, that works well, as they both effectively capture the acting mannerisms and stylizations of those two actors. Janisse sings and talks with a nasally voice like that of James, while Baker shares the cool, devious portrayal of Shakespeare with Borle.
At other times, though, it becomes a distraction, especially when the songs kick up and each of them has to show off their voices, as it seemed like they were both straining to imitate the standard set by the original actors.
It may be unfair to compare Baker and Janisse to their more seasoned counterparts. But when they both clearly try to imitate those actors in their own performances, it’s hard to give them a pass for not being as good. Their respective voices aren’t bad at all, but neither possesses James’ and Borle’s power or tone.
It also didn’t help that the matinee performance at the Lied suffered from sound issues. The volume levels of the chorus, pit band and main actors were noticeably imbalanced. The chorus and pit were overly loud at times, too often making it difficult to hear solo dialogue or singing.
But aside from those nitpicks, “Something Rotten!” was truly hilarious and entertaining. It also managed to be quite heartfelt and earnest in its messages, as Nick learns to put his trust in his family members and pursue success for them instead of for himself.
Providing many great moments for musical theater fans with its clever references and dazzling showtunes, there wasn’t much rotten in the state of Nebraska with this production.